By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
TOWSON, MD. — If ever you wanted to contrast the difference between the magic of a championship season in the Football Championship Subdivision and the struggle to survive in another year, all you had to do was watch the unfolding paradox of last Saturday's Towson-Old Dominion showdown.
A few months back, I was invited to an awards dinner, celebrating the Turnaround Tigers, the team that had gone from 1-10 in 2010 to a Colonial Athletic Association title in 2011.
And if there was an immortalized moment from that 2011 championship run it was Towson's 39-35 victory at Old Dominion.
On fourth and 29, quarterback Grant Enders hit wide receiver Tom Ryan for a 63-yard touchdown with 1:07 remaining to turn a 35-32 deficit into a stunning victory.
The footage of that moment was highlighted repeatedly in Towson's postseason video presentations.
"Last year, we felt like they stole the conference championship from us," said Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
ODU (6-1 overall, 3-1 in the CAA) won't be winning any CAA titles in 2012, after announcing it was making the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA next season.
Following that decision, CAA members decided to ban the Monarchs from championship consideration, though ODU is still eligible for the playoffs in 2012.
But No. 12-ranked Old Dominion got a measure of revenge last Saturday with a 31-20 victory at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
The Monarchs took advantage of Towson mistakes throughout, building a 10-0 lead in the first quarter after an opening-drive field goal and the conversion of a touchdown with an 11-yard pass from Heinicke to Antonio Vaughan after the Tigers fumbled the ensuing kickoff.
ODU extended that edge to 17-6 at the half and then held the Tigers scoreless on a pair of red zone opportunities in the fourth quarter.
It didn't help that All-American running back Terrance West was unavailable after what Ambrose called "a severe loss in his family."
"Terrance was in no shape, or form to be ready to play tonight," Ambrose said.
Even without West, another opponent came away impressed with the Tigers and feeling fortunate that it escaped with a victory.
"This is one of the best teams we've played," said Heinicke, who was held to 26-of-39 passing for 264 yards and one TD and rushed 10 times for 71 yards and two other touchdowns — including a 36-yard scoring scamper. "We just came out and played a really good game."
Like so many times this season, Towson (3-4, 2-2) had its chances to come back, but couldn't execute its offense with enough precision to pull out the win. As a result, the Tigers dropped from 13th to 21st in the CSJ poll
"Once again, we got whooped in the red zone," said Towson coach Rob Ambrose. "That's a story I'm tired of. No way you can give up the ball twice in the first quarter (on turnovers). You can't give up red zone chances like that and expect to win."
Particularly when you are playing a team with a high-octane offense like Old Dominion.
Ambrose was asked about trying to contain Heinicke, a sophomore who many think is the leading candidate for this year's Walter Payton Award.
"Trying to contain Taylor Heinicke? I haven't seen any team contain him and I don't think I will. There is no quarterback I've seen on film this season who has a mastery over his offense like that."
The loss to ODU has put Towson's hopes of repeating a run to the FCS playoffs on life support, heading into a brutal game on Saturday against surprising Villanova, which is tied with New Hampshire on top of the CAA standings.
The Tigers, with losses to two top-10-ranked teams (ODU and James Madison) and two FBS opponents (Kent State and LSU) must win all four remaining games to be considered for the playoffs.
With games at Villanova, Delaware and New Hampshire on the schedule and only a home game against Rhode Island remaining, Towson must run a demanding gauntlet.
And it can't build too much confidence when the team you just lost to was coming off a 38-14 shellacking from the Wildcats.
"I'm very excited with this win," said ODU coach Bobby Wilder. "This was very needed after a 38-14 loss at home last week."
No. 16 Villanova (6-2, 4-1) followed up on that win against previously unbeaten Old Dominion by belting Georgia State — the other CAA runaway with a move to the Sun Belt of the FBS ranks next year — 49-24.
"I don't think a lot of people believe in Villanova right now as a playoff team," said Wildcat coach Andy Talley. Towson is "a big, big, big game for us. This is the most physical team we will see in our league and I hope we are ready for it."
When you get to this point in the CAA season, it almost becomes like a series of playoff-elimination bouts for teams.
"Towson played a very difficult early schedule," said Talley. "I know this is a must win for them."
Along with the task of beating a resurgent Villanova squad, Towson has had its share of off-field distractions this week.
The student newspaper at Towson, the Towerlight, produced several controversial articles with charges from former players — disgruntled ones — that the Tigers had violated NCAA practice rules and that coaches had been disrespectful, among other charges.
Towson athletic officials said they investigated the practice charges and found nothing wrong with the way the school had logged practice hours.
The story has been picked by other mainstream publications, including the Baltimore Sun.
Talley said in his press luncheon at Villanova on Wednesday that the controversial articles might actually motivate the Tigers.
"If anything, that unites a program," Talley explained.